Rarely a week goes by without someone telling me about their struggle to come to terms with sexual abuse in their childhood. A massive torrent of hidden suffering has yet to be uncovered. Lonely, tortured victims who think of themselves as guilty failures miraculously get the courage to talk in a safe place, often for the first time. 

Only those who have personally suffered sexual abuse have any conception of the pain it brings. I can help you begin to understand the devastation a little bit.

I’ve made countless attempts to describe two events that made my life miserable; they have governed every aspect of my life since – for better or worse, mostly worse. I have been unable to adequately describe my feelings for over 50 years. Even today, if I attempt to talk about my abusers, I will not communicate even one per cent of the devastation I felt in those dark days.

Right now, I’m setting myself up to experience the horror of abuse all over again. That’s what sexual abuse does. It cripples you emotionally, physically and spiritually. Still, I have to do it. Whenever I try to share these experiences, friends tell me not to go there if it’s so painful. Yet I must take control of my own emotions and give those who don’t know a tiny glimpse of the horror sexual abuse brings.

No matter how exhausted I am when I go to bed tonight, I will not sleep. I will toss and turn, and if I drift off, I will be shocked back to reality by vivid flashbacks. I will smell the sweat mingled with the stale cigarette stink off his breath. The heavy breathing and the horrible oversized eyes popping out of his big round head will be as visible as they always are when I try to outrun the memory.

I will leave the bed and walk around the room in the dark. It’s not that I’m afraid of the dark—no, it’s just that I can defend myself when I’m awake. Sleep, on the other hand, makes me vulnerable to thoughts and feelings that torment me and never go away.

Maybe that’s where I should begin. Because that’s where Tommy Tiernan took me when I was his guest in the summer of 2019. The chat started with clerical abuse in general and quickly shifted to my experience of abuse in primary school at the age of 10.

‘Tell me what the abuse was like,’ Tommy asked. It was not a nasty question, though it could have been. Tommy trusted me to be honest, and I trusted him to understand.

The interview was traumatic – for me, for Tommy and the audience.

I was an innocent boy of 10 years of age, away from home and anxious to please everyone.

The teacher – a religious Brother - knew he could get away with anything; no one would question his reputation in Catholic circles in Northern Ireland in 1956. A respected Brother’s word against an insignificant boy from Fermanagh? No contest.

I should describe how he abused me, but I must be careful not to elaborate. I don’t need to share the abuse; I want only to explain what abuse does to victims.

He pretended to be interested in me, even though he wasn’t my teacher. At lunchtime, when the classroom was empty, he took me by the arm and led me away from the schoolyard on the pretext of wanting to help me settle in. Then he abused me.

I was trembling in fear. I didn’t understand what had happened to me, but I knew I was no longer an innocent boy from Bellanaleck. In truth, I have never felt at home anywhere since.

He let me go with a dismissive head pat when he finished with me. He went on to teach his class, and I felt dirty, rotten and fearful. Even though I did nothing wrong, I was consumed by shame and guilt. I knew my innocence, my childhood, was gone forever. The abuse happened many times.

I went to Mass every morning and tried to be extra good in my innocent, 10-year-old boyish way. I felt I had to repent for whatever he was doing to me. When the weekly tap on the shoulder came into the playground, he returned to the empty classroom, and I became his recreation for another dirty lunchtime. It went on for months.

All I know is that there was a day in 1956 when I lost my childhood and never found it again. Since that day, there has been a lonely, empty hole in the pit of my stomach. Ever since I have felt I have to make it through life on my own. Deep down within me, the emptiness has never been filled and never will be—not in this life.

The abuser was not rough or, indeed, obviously sexual. He just cruelly used me for his gratification. He bullied me in a sly, cynical way. He abused a naïve country kid just because he could.

To this day, I have an inner longing to be accepted for who I am and not for what I am. If only I could believe that God loves me as I am! I constantly wish I could make up for my stupidity of not knowing what abuse was.

I still have an irrational desire to do what God wants. I continually allow myself to be abused by those in authority. I wish I could grow out of that frozen 10-year-old abused child.

It won’t happen now. I know I will never be ‘worthy’ enough. I don’t fit in; I never will. I, at times, can manage the memory of abuse, but I can never grow out of its clutches. I know it’s irrational, but that is what childhood abuse does. A victim can become a survivor but will never be ‘unabused.’

I know I have grown more robust in the broken places because of what happened to me. From experience, I can tell the clerical Church with utter conviction how cruel they were in not facing up to abuse in their ranks.

Like all-powerful institutions, the churches deliberately chose to put the alleged good name of their institution ahead of protecting innocent children. No sensible person will ever trust them again. Nor should they.

I should now move on through the years to 1963 and tell you about another abuse. But I’m not strong enough today. Maybe someday I will find the courage to share it with you.

Relief is temporary; abuse is permanent.